Thornton Dial, High and Wide, 2002
Mixed Media on Canvas, 76" x 134" x 13"
Courtesy of the artist
Today is Martin Luther King Day, and I find myself in Bessemer, Alabama, sitting in a small office with peeling wallpaper and a flickering fluorescent light. There is coffee brewing in the corner, tended by Richard Dial. Dan Dial, his brother, leans imposingly against a worn-out filing cabinet. I say imposing because he is 6’3” and weighs 275 lbs. Various other Dials wander in and out of the room, checking-in and greeting me with a quick shake or a nod. They are not hostile, nor are they overly friendly. There are even more of them outside, sitting on the beds of their trucks or leaning against the hoods of their cars talking about Alabama’s newfound status as National Champions or some other related subject. The office is attached to an enormous building full of steel working machines and other unrecognizable tools – Dial Metal Patterns. I am seated across from Thornton Dial, Sr., the family’s undisputed patriarch. He looks frailer than the rest of them, but is dressed immaculately, a maroon-collared shirt tucked into a pair of black pants, a black baseball cap. His hands, still powerful, are clasped over his knees.
I am nervous.
Thornton Dial is a rare breed of American artist. He is 81 years old and has lived in Bessemer since he was 12. Bessemer is 18 miles southwest of Birmingham and in the middle of the iron ore and limestone district of Alabama. The city was ideal for steel making and served as a major steel center through most of the 20th century. Dial lists the jobs he’s worked matter-of-factly: “I’ve been a bricklayer, steelworker, been at the waterworks, cement plant, commercial fisherman, paving highways.” Dial does not mention that he is an artist, but that is why I’m here; to speak with the man who has been included in the Whitney Biennial and had solo-exhibitions at the New Museum, The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Museum of American Folk Art. I begin the interview with a fairly innocuous question: “For the benefit of people who are not familiar with your work, could you describe the types of subjects that interest you?”
“You got my art. You got my mind,” he replies, low and deep. And then silence. Not brooding silence. Not uncooperative silence. Just silence. At that moment, I realize that this isn’t going to be a standard interview. Dial is different. Confident. He is, admittedly, not a “talker.” And why should he be? He has spent the entirety of his life making assemblages, paintings, drawings and sculptures. I ask him how long he has been making artwork, to which he replies, “Ever since I been in the world.” What more is there to talk about?
Thornton Dial, Bone House, 2000
Mixed Media on Canvas, 75" x 99" x 11"
Courtesy of the artist
Dial is also illiterate, a result of historical circumstance rather than lack of will. He began working as a mule-driver at the age of 5 and was not afforded the chance to ever go to school. What Dial lacks in terms of a formal English vocabulary, he overwhelms with a highly developed visual vocabulary. His assemblages and sculptures seem to have grown directly out of the streets of Bessemer or any such place in the post-war industrialized South. Large constructions are nailed, welded, glued and painted together using discarded industrial materials, birdbaths, carpet, and chunks of concrete (among other things). These constructions, viewed together, reveal a complex visual history of the Black South.
Dial, thanks to his age and the scope of his vision, is one of the first ambassadors of Southern African-American visual culture. He is not an isolated artist, but a product of an evolving culture that, without the benefit of formal education, artistic or otherwise, developed its own visual language, expressing itself in line, collage, installation, sculpture, painting and drawing. The resulting artworks were, and remain, abstract and impervious to facile decoding by the ruling classes: the slave-owners, landowners or factory bosses programmed by a European understanding of art. Much like the better known “slave songs,” the artwork of this black culture was laden with metaphor and symbols, as the artists guarded their creations and their meaning for fear of retribution. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement that black artists, including Dial, were able to take their art out of the cemeteries, the forests and their homes to be shared with the world-at-large.
Over the past decade, Dial has produced some of his most sophisticated work in the form of complex assemblages. Many of these works are impossibly large - weighing hundreds of pounds and measuring 10 – 12 feet in length. In 2002, Dial painted High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), currently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The work depicts a slave ship carrying a blackened Mickey Mouse doll in chains. The piece is made from goat hides, clothing, carpet, metal, a stuffed-animal backpack, barbed wire, upholstery, textbook covers, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood. Using bright colors and dark humor, Dial depicts elements of the historical slave trade amid elements of contemporary pop culture to demonstrate the white man’s insatiable appetite for the black jester. High and Wide, the work’s title, is derived from a children’s book cover used in the piece which depicts the skyline of New York City, the entertainment capital of the world.
After a few more questions and a cup of coffee, I get Dial to describe his art. “I try to make things that I have seen. You want to make things you’ve seen in the world. And not everyone can make the same thing. There are a lot of things you have seen but can’t make. But someone else can see it and make it.” To make sure I understand his point, he adds, “I know things that you don’t know.”
With the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday I ask Dial what he thinks of King and his legacy, to which he responds, “That man was a godsend.” One of his sons suggests I look at the book of Dial’s work, where I come across an image of Dial’s piece entitled Blood and Meat—a harrowing display of rope, paint and scrawled figures on canvas. King is depicted in the presence of JF Kennedy, Jesus Christ and other unidentified martyrs, all slaughtered for their beliefs. The abstracted figures wallow in blood, intestines and guts. Dial bears witness to the horror, “I seen a lot of stuff, man.”
Thornton Dial, Blood and Meat, 1992
Mixed Media on Canvas, 65" x 95" x 11"
Courtesy of the artist
Dial's willingness to meet with me in the first place is somewhat surprising. He didn’t have a conversation with a white man or woman, as equals, until he was almost 60 years old. And as for his experiences with the media, in the early 90’s, Dial’s work and life were both directly attacked in an episode of 60 Minutes that cast him as a modern day Uncle Tom playing into the hands of powerful white art brokers. Dial was less than amused. Nor is he fooled by the supposed sincerity of the press. Referencing the 60 Minutes interview, he says:
“These folks come here from 60 Minutes and saying they want to give respect for the black peoples making art. But after a while, that TV man start talking the art down, and ask Bill [Arnett] how something made by a man like Dial—he be meaning a little colored boy without no education—how it be worth one hundred thousand dollars. And Bill say if stuff be selling for a million that a white man make and ain’t no better, he guess Dial look pretty good for the money. The television person talk about me in my face like white folks used to talk about their servants in the same room…like they ain’t there. It got to be respect in the United States. Sometimes it is, nowadays. Sometimes it ain’t. I was thinking about some of that lately, and my auntie Sarah Lockett, she was telling me about the history, and about slave auctions, and it seem to me this man talking the price of Dial don’t be no different than the slave seller talking the price of a African, like a bull or cow. So I made this piece of art, the white auction man talking the value of the slave. That twisted-up tiger at the bottom—he going to struggle through this mess. A bicycle chain on there saying that the same stuff just keep going around. Mr. Dial might be looking good for the price, but he just as soon still be a slave.”
Thornton Dial, Looking Good For the Price, 1993
Mixed Media on Canvas, 79" x 79" x 7.5"
Courtesy of the artist
The referenced conversation took place between Morley Safer, the host of 60 Minutes, and Bill Arnett, Dial’s benefactor. Arnett had suggested that in a world where an Alex Katz painting was priced at one million dollars, a Dial piece “looked pretty good” for $100,000. The jab was not aimed at Katz but rather at a market that undervalues the work and achievements of its “uneducated black artists.” Dial happens to be one of the most glaring examples of this. If he is reluctant to talk to me, a white man, about the intimate details of his work, it may be in large part due to the rejection of a majority art culture that still holds him, and other artists from his tradition, at a distance, casting them as “folk, outsider, primitive, and naïve.”
To add insult to injury, he has NEVER had a solo-exhibition in the state of Alabama. Accepting Dial into the pantheon of contemporary art history would require the art community to overcome conventional ideas of race, socioeconomic status and formal education. The public would have to judge its artists solely on the strength of their work, and in the understanding of their own tradition. Or in the words of Dr. King, “they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In 2011, Dial has a show opening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art entitled: Hard Truths. I ask him what he thinks of the title, and he says, “The way I see it. The hard truth is the truth, because it comes from what you know. It’s a hard story. The only thing I know is the hard truth.”
Thornton Dial, Who Got The Corn?, 2002
Mixed Media on Canvas, 55" x 78" x 8"
Courtesy of the artist
Dial’s work is currently on view at Tanner-Hill Project Space in Atlanta through March 15 and a large retrospective entitled Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is scheduled for February 28-May 15, 2011 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Phillip March Jones is an artist, writer and curator based in Lexington, Kentucky. He is the Creative Director of Institute 193, a non-profit contemporary art space in Lexington.view all articles from this author